by Bryan Kirschner on July 23, 2008 04:39pm

Now that we’ve had our first “participate” event in conjunction with OSCON here in Portland, I wanted to share a few thoughts. This was a great experience and a great event—or, really, two consecutive events, the morning case study discussion and the afternoon panel.

First I’ll talk about the case study and then build on comments from some folks who’ve “beaten me to the blog.” In the morning Karim Lakhani from Harvard led the group through a case study about a fast-growing company (Threadless t-shirts) built on community contribution and distributed innovation. This was basically like being in a Harvard Business School class with a bunch of super achievers, complete with questions and counter questions (John Wilbanks from Science Commons blogs about it here). Stepping back and taking a look at a whole bunch of concepts and practices that underlie open source in the software domain in another context (t-shirt design), IMO, really opened the floodgates on discussion—a discussion Karim (with regret) had to close as the buzz in the room kept right on going well over time and into lunch…

In the afternoon I was part of a panel discussion and Q and A that started back in the software domain specifically. The one thing I would definitely do differently is to couple the morning case study and the later panel discussion more tightly. Not everyone who could be part of one was part of the other this year, and the real “ah ha’s” for me came from being a part of both. Here’s what I took away overall.

I introduced the morning session by noting that we’re at the ten-year mark since the folks who founded the Open Source Initiative (OSI) rallied around the term “open source.” At last year’s OSCON, Bill Hilf announced we had launched http://Microsoft.com/opensource , our first public, official, company-wide statement of policy and strategy on OSS. So (I said): “If you look at that span of time from 1998 to 2007, no one can accuse us of being precipitous, and no one can flatter us for being first adopters.”
But there’s a benefit to being slow: other people don’t stand still stuff. That includes folks like Karim and another professor on our panel, Siobhan O’Mahony, doing research. I can’t emphasize enough the contributions their work and that of many others of their peers made to our first step in informing and building acceptance of that step into participation in 2007. We read it all.

And this is where I’ll offer a different perspective than Zack—in his blog he said he felt the afternoon session (on which I really appreciated his participation and contributions) he felt a bit like “it was outside looking in” on open source and “academic.” With regard to the first point, one of my goals for next year is definitely to figure out how we integrate the “inside look out” (at another domain) like we did in the morning. With regard to the latter, here’s the interesting thing to me: “academic” can be pejorative when it means “divorced from any substantive decision-making”—that is, you’re just studying for the sake of studying. And I can where Zack is coming from: MySQL is one of the oldest OSS-based businesses. Zack was quite clear he knows how they manage their dev process and a bunch of other things. Unlike the folks at Threadless and perhaps many younger OSS-based companies, Zack and MySQL’s leadership team don’t even have to wonder about what to do if they are offered a big contract or billion-dollar buy out from a big established vendor…they’ve been there, done that. I respect that.

But if like Zack (and Matt Asay, who couldn’t be at partcipate08…Matt, I’ve read your blogs for years, you’re a thoughtful guy, I would bet money you couldn’t help but love the morning session…save a date for 09!) you are encouraging Microsoft to make more code (or whole products) open source: on the Microsoft side “academic” insights are highly relevant and actionable. Siobhan almost literally wrote the book on how established companies work with foundations and communities. Karim’s understanding of distributed innovation spans from the early days of OSS’ popularity through Wikipedia and beyond (we learned on Monday that there is a vibrant online user innovation community around custom granola recipes…).

Their research and practitioners like Allison (and others) abstracting out how what-worked-in-her-experience might apply to another technology or audience are directly relevant to diverse Microsoft teams figuring out how to “go open” in ways that are sustainable because they engage a community and make business sense—there are some great examples (here and here and here). But if there’s one qualification for being the first person in the history of the universe with the title of “Director of Open Source Strategy at Microsoft” (…thanks Bill and Sam…) it is this: the humility to understand it would be foolish to try to figure out how to expand this list company-wide on our own, without learning from everyone who has gone before.

So here is the real a-ha for me: John Wilbanks’ job is a lot harder than mine. He is approaching the Science Commons domain with a far less robust body of knowledge and shared understanding across communities than we have in OSS. Some of that may be ten years of “open source” versus a shorter timeframe for applying these concepts to science—but what I tried to articulate at the end of the panel was this: I believe “open source” has achieved a fascinating and valuable thing. It has achieved a balance as an construct which is not just a reductive, narrow focus on source code licensing (which is a component) nor a vague, fuzzy, wishy-washy platitude or marketing slogan (which is a risk and something I know the OSI worries about). It has enough cohesion, flexibility, and surface tension to be something you can study scientifically and discuss with a shared understanding of how it relates to software or t-shirts or science, and have an intuitive “know-good-practices-when-you-see-them” dimension.

I think the OSI and other leaders in open source contributed to this by striving to maintain fidelity to a core set of values while being flexible rather than doctrinaire. And here at OSCON this strikes me: last year at OSCON 2007 Bill Hilf also announced we were submitting two Microsoft Shared Source licenses to the OSI for approval. This was a milestone I see as not just instrumentally useful to provide clarity to users of these licenses; I see it as fitting as a matter of respect and recognition. And this year we took another step forward with participate08 here at Tim O’Reilly and Allison Randal’s OSCON 2008. I see this as fitting not just instrumentally as a matter of convenience (--lots of the right people happen to be here--) but as a matter of respect and recognition. I hope to be back for participate09.

I am going to close this blog entry on that thought but for one picture that really is worth a thousand words. Once we get the notes and the whiteboard photos assembled I’ll share more about the discussion, but this image will stick with me a theme for why so many folks did come to think hard and contribute as a part of participate08—and why I am grateful they did:


(photo by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media)